HONOLULU — Last Saturday, Matti Gorodenchik, a football coach at Kaimuki High School, learned that Hamas terrorists had attacked Israel while he was in Pearl City with the Kaimuki Bulldogs before the start of a game.
Gorodenchik, an Israeli immigrant who has lived in Hawaii for the past five years, immediately texted his sister, wanting to know if she was alright. His sister, her husband, and their 2-year-old daughter live in Gilat in Southern Israel. She told him she was hiding in a bomb shelter.
As the Kaimuki Bulldogs played their game, he continued to get messages from his sister and childhood friends, telling him that “terrorists are here.” While Hamas has launched thousands of rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza over the past two decades, he was shocked to hear terrorists had stormed into Israeli towns.
Gorodenchik said he couldn’t look away from his phone to coach his players. He texted with family and friends in Israel throughout the game, trying to understand what was happening.
His sister and her family survived the siege. When she finally emerged from hiding, she went to the adjacent neighborhood, Ofakim, and said she saw dead people in the streets.
The Palestinian terrorist group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, catching the country by surprise. Terrorists invaded the country’s south, gunning down hundreds of people, including children in their homes and young people at a music festival in the desert. They kidnapped over 100 people from inside Israel and brought them to Gaza, where they are holding them hostage.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to “crush and destroy” Hamas. Israel's military responded with airstrikes in Gaza, destroying buildings and killing many people. The Israeli military also warned more than one million people in northern Gaza to evacuate their homes ahead of an expected ground invasion.
As of Friday, more than 2,800 people have been killed on both sides, including 27 American citizens.
In Hawaii, the Jewish community has responded by organizing rallies, sharing messages on social media, talking to one another, analyzing the situation, and collectively grieving.
Spectrum News talked with five members of Hawaii’s Jewish community to learn how they are reacting to the Israel-Hamas War.
Josh Michaels, a Jewish American who grew up on Oahu and attends Sof Ma’arav, a conservative congregation in Nuuanu, said he has been “heartbroken” since the attacks.
“This massacre was the largest indiscriminate slaughter of Jewish civilians since the Holocaust,” said Michaels.
In 2010, he visited Israel through Birthright, a free 10-day trip for young adults with Jewish heritage. Michaels described himself as having a strong affinity for Israel while still being mindful of political concerns regarding the country. He described the Jewish people as one big family who, despite arguments about politics, still have a responsibility to one another.
“My heart was shattered by the horrific carnage … massacres, rapes, sexual violence, the mutilation, the parading of corpses,” said Michaels. “My heart is broken, too, for the innocent people of Gaza who had been suffering and are unfortunately going to continue to suffer.”
Michaels said Hamas must be destroyed, but he is concerned about the hardships that Palestinians in Gaza are experiencing after Israeli officials cut off fuel and water.
He described the Palestinians as “our cousins and our neighbors.”
“As hopeless and bleak as everything feels, I think at the end of the day, Dr. King is still right. ‘We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.’”
A scary time to be Jewish
Rachel Short, a rabbi who serves Hilo’s Jewish community, said since the attacks, she has been extremely emotional.
“It's hard to get out of bed in the morning,” said Short.
After hearing of last Saturday’s assault by Hamas, she worried about her extended family members who live in Israel. On Tuesday, she finally heard all of her Israeli relatives were accounted for and safe. However, two of her cousins have been called into the Israel Defense Forces Reserves. Israel has called up 360,000 reservists in the incursion's wake.
“You feel helpless, all the way across the world, watching our people suffer in something so horrifying,” said Short. “At the same time, as a Jewish person, it instantly puts you on rise.”
She worries about her safety amidst rising antisemitism.
“I faced it myself, even here in Hawaii. … I’ve faced it on a personal level — on island and on social media — and it’s a really scary time to be a Jew,” said Short.
As an outspoken Jewish leader on social media, Short receives comments that are concerning. Short, who went to rabbinical school in 2014 in Israel, said she uses her Instagram account to mourn with other Jews, but also to educate people “as propaganda runs rampant.”
“I'm scared, but it's also not going to stop me from sharing,” said Short.
Short said she was inspired to become a rabbi after going to the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel, and noticing the similarities between the antisemitism of the past and the present.
“The only way that we eliminate antisemitism … is education and letting people see who the Jewish people are, what we stand for, and how we conduct ourselves, which is love and light and faith and integrity and peace,” said Short.
The Hilo rabbi is also concerned about the Jewish community she serves. She encourages her congregants to take social media breaks. She is also providing counseling to them and is “trying to hold space for healing.”
She said Jewish people need support from non-Jewish people. Short asked people to pray for peace and Israel, to speak up about the atrocities, and to check on their Jewish friends.
“They’re not ok. Check on them,” said Short. “They’re scared to talk about it. They’re scared to walk around. There’s a pervasive fear being a Jewish person.”
On Monday, the rabbi is hosting a vigil for Israel along with other faith communities, and she encourages the entire Hilo community to attend.
Polarized narratives on social media
Daphne Desser, an English professor at the University of Hawaii and a Jewish American who is the descendant of Holocaust survivors, said everything “has been such a blur” since she first found out Hamas attacked Israel. “I've been living this 24/7, so it's been a constant nonstop conversation. I think I've lost track of time.”
One story that hit her the hardest was hearing about the killing of Brandeis University professor Ilan Troen’s daughter and son-in-law, while they protected their 16-year-old son from Hamas terrorists.
“The thing about this story is that his daughter and son-in-law were musicians. … They were sending their children to a school taught in both Hebrew and Arabic for Jewish citizens of Israel and Arab citizens of Israel. … (They) were very much in favor of finding a way to community and supporting a pathway to peace.”
When interviewed by NBC Boston, Troen called the Hamas attack a pogrom, a violent riot aimed at massacring or expelling Jews.
From pro-Palestinian activists, Desser said she has heard many characterize the Hamas attack as a liberation operation. A fellow professor in UH’s English Department shared on her Instagram stories posts about the attack being “the largest ever Palestinian liberation operation” and others that celebrated the attack.
“We can agree to disagree on the perspectives: pogrom versus a liberation operation. But when we move towards celebrating brutality, and being not sympathetic to the cruelty, we've passed a line of acceptability,” said Desser.
She said it was a difficult moment for her and an emotional experience to have her colleagues share messages on Instagram celebrating Hamas attacking Israel, where her mother was born and many of her relatives live. While she is not on Instagram herself, she said students who were upset by the messages sent them to her. She is on the board of Hillel, a Jewish campus organization, which students may contact to report incidents of discrimination or antisemitism.
“It hurts, and it feels dehumanizing for my colleagues to enter into that kind of discourse and not consider the impact that might have,” said Desser.
She said students also expressed discomfort about what was being said in the classroom about the Israel-Hamas War. For example, that Israel deserved it.
“It doesn't often just stay on social media. It will seep into the classroom,” said Desser.
Hamas doesn’t represent all Palestinians
Evan Weber grew up on Oahu and had his Bar Mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El. He has never been to Israel, but he has friends and extended family members who live there. Luckily, he said, they are all safe.
Hearing of the attacks by Hamas, Weber said he was shocked and felt sick to his stomach. He “got even more sick” when thinking about “killing innocent civilians in Gaza.”
While living in Washington, D.C., in 2015, he joined IfNotNow, an American Jewish organization that opposes the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Weber has shared his thoughts on X, formerly known as Twitter, writing that the actions of Hamas are terrorism, while the Israeli military’s actions in Gaza are genocide. He said he thought it was important to speak up since there aren’t many Jews in Hawaii. Hawaii has between 8,000 to 10,000 Jewish residents, or 0.5% of the state’s population, according to a report from Jewish Community Services of Hawaii.
“I know that a lot of my friends look to me both to understand and learn about Judaism and … for my perspective on politics,” said Weber, who is a political consultant. “There aren’t many Jews here in Hawaii who have been actively involved in organizing in support of Palestinian rights.”
IfNotNow doesn’t have a chapter in Hawaii, but Weber remains a member of the organization’s board of directors, working to support their national mission.
He said the goal should be to stop the violence, which requires a ceasefire.
Since the Israel-Hamas War started, he has also felt “a real sense of fear” as a Jewish person, especially after a former Hamas leader called for a Global Day of Jihad.
“I’m supposed to be going to a wedding at Temple Emanu-El this weekend and many of us are fearful about being a target,” said Weber.
The brutal attacks by Hamas reminded Gorodenchik, who grew up in Israel, of past traumas inflicted on Jewish people.
While most people think of the Holocaust, Gorodenchik said he also educates his students about the entire history of Jews. After the Romans invaded Israel in 63 BCE, a Jewish diaspora began migrating to other Roman territories in response to incessant warfare.
“Jews are spread all over the world because of atrocities (that took place) 2,000 years ago,” said Gorodenchik.
He started listing other horrors that Jewish people have endured: the Pogroms in Russia, the Farhud in Iraq, and the persecution and expulsion of Jews from many other countries.
“We're stronger than all this. This is horrible. But the Jewish people, we went through hell. And we always prevail,” said Gorodenchik.
Gorodenchik said he has been watching the news from Israel constantly. He said his wife encouraged him to get out and show his support.
He is in a WhatsApp group chat with about 115 Israelis who live in Hawaii. With the help of the Israeli group chat, Gorodenchik organized a gathering last Sunday to show support for Israel at the corner of Ala Moana Beach Boulevard and Atkinson Drive. About 25 people waved Israeli flags and held signs.
“It was amazing to see the reactions from the people,” said Gorodenchik. “When people were walking by, (they) were coming and saying that they’re sorry for what happened … and people honking, everyone giving us shakas.”
In response to a question about safety, Gorodenchik said it’s always a concern when Jewish people gather. However, for Gorodenchik, it’s important to respond to fear with Jewish pride.
“Today, more than ever, I am always wearing my Star of David,” said Gorodenchik, referring to a gold necklace he wears.
Gorodenchik said he is currently planning more rallies, and many of his friends in Hawaii have ordered Israeli flags. He hopes the non-Jewish people in Hawaii will join with the Jewish community to show support for Israel and pray for those who are being held hostage in Gaza.
“All the coaches I coach with, they all text me ‘Matti, we got your back whatever you need.’ My players are sharing stuff on Instagram,” said Gorodenchik. “So, I know that the people of Hawaii want to support us. And that and that's nice because Hawaii is my home now.”